President Trump thinks it’s the Achilles’ heel for Democrats. As do some Democrats running for president. But Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is leaning into the “socialist” label. He’ll argue in a speech Wednesday that it’s exactly what Democrats need to do to win.
This is one of the defining debates of the 2020 Democratic primary. It’s one of the clearest contrasts between Sanders and another top-tier polling candidate, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). So where do the rest of the candidates stand? Here are four different factions:
1. The socialism is good faction.
Who’s in it: Right now, just Sanders. Activists tell me they haven’t seen another 2020 candidate embrace the phrase as Sanders has in this election.
What he’s saying: That big-government programs to provide health care and education and other benefits to everyone is not a radical idea. “[W]hat democratic socialism means to me is a continuation of what Franklin Delano Roosevelt talked about,” Sanders told Politico in an interview ahead of his speech. Later, he added: “What I’m talking about tomorrow is not particularly radical. But we have to put it on the table and make sure everyone appreciates why economic rights are human rights.”
What impact he’s having on the race: A big one. Sanders is driving the conversation about what kind of party Democrats want to be. Four other Democratic senators running for president have signed onto his Medicare-for-all legislation: Cory Booker (N.J.), Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) and Warren.
2. The socialism is bad faction.
Who’s in it: Moderate, lesser-known candidates like former Maryland congressman John Delaney and former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper and Sen. Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.).
What they’re saying: That Trump is right, championing big-government programs like this will cost Democrats the White House. “Socialism is not the answer,” Hickenlooper said. “If we’re not careful, we’re going to end up reelecting the worst president in American history.”
What impact they’re having: Well, Hickenlooper got boos when he said that to a crowd of liberal activists in San Francisco. Those folks make up the party’s hardcore base. But it’s worth pointing out that the champions of this are some of the lowest-polling candidates in the 2020 field. Will that change as they have more time to get their names and anti-socialism message out?
3. The don’t call me a socialist, but … faction.
Who’s in it: Warren, Harris and Booker are three big names.
What they’re saying: Before Warren launched her presidential campaign, she said she is a “capitalist to my bones.” But she has also proposed legislation that would restructure how corporations are set up with the aim of making them more accountable to the average worker. Harris has also declared she is “not a democratic socialist.” And Booker recently said: “I am not a socialist.” But these senators all support some legislation that Republicans and some centrist Democrats argue is rooted in socialism, like Medicare-for-all.
What impact they’re having on the race: Can they thread the needle to support policies that are popular with the Democratic base without being labeled as socialists? That may be much more difficult to do now that Sanders has drawn a line in the sand that policies he supports are, indeed, socialist.
4. The quiet objectors.
Who’s in it: Everyone else in the field, including former vice president Joe Biden. You could also argue Warren is in this category, too.
What they’re saying: As little as possible. They sense that the Democratic base likes the label, so even if they don’t agree with using it — or its policies — they are trying not to offend people they’ll need to win the nomination. Biden hasn’t said much about it. In an interview with Vox, Warren declined to specifically criticize people who call themselves “democratic socialists.” “All I can do is tell you what I believe in because I can’t tell you about anybody else,” she said.
What impact they’re having on the race: It will be interesting to see whether at some point these candidates have to come out in favor of or against the term socialism. But this group has a powerful backer in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the top elected Democrat right now. She hasn’t allowed a vote on Medicare-for-all or the Green New Deal, less it put her vulnerable members in a difficult position, politically.